Dropping Clues With Kimberly Belle
The Dear Wife author talks about the real-life person who inspired her new novel and how she pulled off a plot twist worthy of Gillian Flynn.
Kimberly Belle made the leap into the suspense genre in 2017 with The Marriage Lie. In that book, a husband lies and fakes his death, causing his wife to go on a desperate search that exposes the darker side of marriage. Last year’s Three Days Missing dealt with the disappearance of a child and a mother going through a divorce from an abusive husband. Belle thought she was done writing about domestic abuse after that one, but her subconscious wouldn’t let the idea go for her latest book.
She had turned in an outline and proposal for an entirely different book when the idea for Dear Wife woke her up in the middle of the night. “I stared at the ceiling, and it played like a movie in my head,” she says. “I called my editor in the morning and told her to dump the other story and give me two more weeks to put this story together. The subconscious is a powerful thing. I wish I knew how to tap into it more often.”
Dear Wife is based on a friend of Belle’s who was abused by her husband. It took her several years to be able to write about such a painful situation, but mother Kat in Three Days Missing is also inspired by that same friend.
“I wrote Kat, and I thought I was done with the whole domestic violence idea,” says Belle. “When the idea for Dear Wife came to me, I knew I had more to say. Kat is in a different place when her child goes missing. She’s at the beginning of the arc of what happened to her. She’s still really sad about how her marriage fell apart. In Dear Wife, you have the opposite end, a character abused for years who is smart and angry and ready to make her escape.”
Belle gives readers two female characters in Dear Wife. Sabine Hardison is a local realtor who’s turned up missing, and Beth is on the run trying to start a new life away from her abusive husband. Part of the allure is not knowing which woman is which—or if there are even two women.
Belle said she tried to keep readers in the dark for as long as possible. “When I set out to write this book, I didn’t want an unreliable narrator,” she explains. “They’re definitely all keeping some secrets and not revealing everything going on in their heads. I wanted the reader to make an assumption of one thing when it’s really the other.”
She knows that suspense readers are savvy and always looking for clues. It’s her job as an author to stay one step ahead of them and try to outsmart even the best armchair detectives. Belle’s outline—and her editor and agent—helped her keep track of how many clues she’d dropped and when.
The men in this book are just as important as the women, and it’s in their chapters that readers will find the most clues. Jeffrey is Sabine’s detached, possibly abusive husband—he’s admitted to hitting her once—who wanted to make amends with his wife before she disappeared. Marcus is the police detective searching for Sabine. He’s also a momma’s boy with a sickly wife and an anger management problem.
“I figured readers would be on the lookout for everybody in this story,” says Belle, who admits she’s had to tone down the suspense at times. “I tend to go a little too far and then I have to pull back on things, character-wise,” she says. “I want it to be realistic, and I think that’s the charm of this genre. I think that’s why readers keep flocking to these stories. It also plants that question in their head, if this had been me, what would I have done?”
J.T. Ellison called Dear Wife “subtle, insidious and clever,” and she’s spot on with her praise. Belle’s suspense is so subtle at times that it sneaks up on you, and only the cleverest of writers could pull off this plot.
Belle’s friend gave her permission to tell her story in case it would help at least one woman. “Beth embodies all the things I really admire about my friend,” Belle says. “A lot of the things I learned about domestic abuse are about how getting out is the most dangerous time. The statistic is something like 70 percent of women are killed by their husbands when they make a run for it.”
There’s no doubt that Beth is making a run for it, and readers will cheer her on. As she relocates to Atlanta, gets a job cleaning a local church and finds a room at a boardinghouse, she is also forced to make some questionable and illegal decisions. “Beth knew what she was doing was wrong, and she knew she would get arrested for these things, but it was the only way she would survive,” Belle says.
For now, Belle (pictured) is moving on to a different topic for her next book, although she says domestic violence is a subject that needs not be forgotten. Her forthcoming novel is set in a mountainous lake town inspired by Highlands and Cashiers, North Carolina. It’s a story of rich vs. poor about a local woman who marries an older wealthy man. When a body washes up on the lake in front of their house, the husband tells a lie to the police and his wife backs him up.
“The thing that fascinates me about that setting is you have these gorgeous, million dollar homes on this lake, and it’s all money from elsewhere,” says Belle. “Then you have the locals who are cleaning their toilets basically. This is a rags to riches story, but she really loves this guy.”
All good domestic suspense novels start out with a love story, but we know where that leads …
Dear Wife is one of our 2019 summer reads. View our full Summer Reading List here.